Monday, January 28, 2013

LAX-NRT AA business class

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita
NRT-LAX AA business class
LAX AA Flagship Lounge
LAX-NRT AA business class
NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

After a short stay in California, it was time to head back to Japan on American Airlines 777 business class.  This segment was the most crucial since it's a 12-hour flight, which is an absolute misery in economy class particularly for a U.S. carrier.  My flight departed on 12/31 and arrived on 1/1, so I was forced to celebrate New Years in the sky.  I chose this flight because AA was offering double miles through 12/31, and this would be the last flight to qualify for the promo, which would result in a whooping 35,000 award miles for a roundtrip flight.  It also didn't hurt that my systemwide upgrade to business class cleared instantly at the time of booking.

Hard product
The hard product, including AVOD, was synonymous with my NRT-LAX segment, which sucked because that means all the movies would be the same.  Fortunately, AA has several dozen movies to choose from, so I settled for second best.
Empty cabin
The business class cabin was near empty with only about a quarter of the seats being filled.  This can be expected on a New Years' Eve flight.  But that just meant more service attention and more food, which is always a good thing.

Lunch was served an hour after takeoff.  I opted for the Japanese meal set, which needs to be requested over the phone with AA at least 24 hours in advance.  Because the Japanese meal was decent for my NRT-LAX segment, I expected nothing less for this transpacific flight.  At first sight of the starter sushi, I knew that I was doomed for disappointment.
Half the size and half the taste of the NRT-LAX sushi
What's interesting is that the meal set didn't come with the actual set menu, so the entire thing was a mystery.  After the sushi appetizer was the main course, which consisted of steak, assorted vegetables, rice, mushrooms, and eggs.
The steak was so hard that my chopsticks couldn't make a dent in it, and the mushrooms were definitely subpar.  I hate to say it, but this meal reminded me of United's transpacific business class meal, which would be unsellable in the deli section of Safeway.  1 1/2 hours before landing, they served the light meal, which was a choice between sesame chicken and Uno's cheese pizza.
The light meal was reminiscence of what AA serves on their domestic flight class flights, but I guess that's what you get for a transpacific "light meal".
The Western/Japanese fusion lunch menu: I probably should have picked from this instead of the Japanese meal set
Light meal options.  The mini bento box was not bad.
Bottom line
Don't expect much out of the food from a U.S. carrier transpacific flight departing from the U.S.  This meal was substantially worse than the NRT-LAX segment's and night and day compared to Japan Airlines' transpacific business class food from SFO-HND.  However, possibly due to the empty plane, service was great and the flight attendant was definitely worthy of an AA employee recognition certificate, which I gladly wrote up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

American Express Gold card is at it again: 75,000 point sign-up bonus

The American Express Business Gold rewards card has been known to offer a seasonal 75,000 point sign-up bonus, albeit for only 1 day.  They're at it again, but this time, the offer is good for a week through January 28th.  This is a good opportunity if you're able to meet the spending threshold of $10,000 within the first 4 months of card membership.  The annual fee of $175 is also waived for the first year.  Here are some of the card benefits:

-LIMITED TIME OFFER: Earn 75,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $10,000 in the first 4 months of Card membership.
 -3X points on airfare
 -2X points on purchases in the U.S. for advertising in select media, gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations, and shipping
 -1X points on all other purchases
 -$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $175
Amex reward points can be transferred for a 1:1 ratio to many frequent traveler programs, most notably Delta Airlines, ANA, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Air Canada, Virgin America, Best Western, and Hilton.  For more info on this card and for transfer partners, check out Mommy Points' post.

And since it's an Amex card, you'll be getting unparalleled card protection benefits such as theft and damage protection, extended warranty, and return protection.  75k points goes a long way if redeemed properly, so don't miss out on this offer as it's currently the best credit card sign-up bonus.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

LAX AA Flagship Lounge

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita
NRT-LAX AA business class
LAX AA Flagship Lounge
LAX-NRT AA business class
NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

The AA Flagship Lounge (FL) is American Airlines' first class lounge product.  These exclusive lounges, which are only found at LAX, ORD, JFK, and LHR airports, completely blow AA business class lounges (Admiral's Clubs) out of the water.  Access to FLs is restricted to passengers flying on long-haul first class international and transcontinental flights as well as One World Emerald members.  Since I had layovers in LAX for both my en route and return segments, I was granted access to the FL as a One World Emerald member, which is given to all AA Executive Platinum elites.  Unfortunately, my arrival at LAX was preceded by a severe storm, which compromised the FL's roofing, resulting in flooding and lounge closure.  Fortunately, the roofing issue was fixed in time for my return layover in LAX.

My 6:45 am SFO flight arrived in LAX at 8:20 am, giving me a 2 1/2 hour layover before my transpacific flight back to Tokyo.  The entrance to the LAX FL is actually in the Admiral's Club (AC).  Upon entry to the AC, I was given a key card which opens the sliding doors to the FL.  A desk agent eagerly awaits to serve you as you enter the FL, and a breakfast menu was posted. 

Since it was still early in the morning and I had yet to eat anything since waking up at 4:30 am, I immediately headed for the food corner.
The hot breakfast selection included scrambled eggs, chicken sausages, hash browns, oatmeal, and a waffle maker.
The cold food consisted of what I miss the most in Japan: fruit.  Included were my top three favorite fruits: strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which cost a fortune in Japan.  I went to town on them since it had felt like ages since I enjoyed these delicacies.
Breakfast starter
They replaced the cold foods for lunch and were in the process of presenting the hot lunch foods as I exited the FL to board my flight.  I got a glimpse of what appeared to be rice and vegetable curry as I walked out.
Lunch cold fold selection
The FL's drink selection was extremely generous.  Instead of soda machines and taps, all the soft drinks and beers were offered in the refrigerators as self-serve bottles and cans.  Premium alcoholic drinks were all complimentary, which is not the case at AA and United's biz class lounges.
Soft drinks
Premium alcohol
Aside from the consumables, the key distinguishing factor of the FL is the quiet and empty atmosphere.  Whereas the AC can easily overcrowd since membership can be purchased, the FL created a soothing atmosphere with low attendance.  Bose noise-canceling headphones are offered in the music listening section, and every seat has a nice view of the terminal gates.
Bottom Line
The LAX FL is a good start for a transpacific flight.  Food and drink selections were spectacular for a U.S. carrier lounge, though mostly everything falls short when compared to the JAL First Class Lounge.  However, unlike JAL and ANA, who only provide marginal differences between their first and biz class lounges, AA actually excels in the first class lounge product, making it night and day compared to their skimpy AC biz lounges.  The FL is arguably the best U.S. carrier lounge on the planet, rivaling Asian carrier biz lounges.  It's definitely worth the stop, and I'm looking forward to my second visit next week, pending sufficient roof integrity, of course.

Next: LAX-NRT AA business class

Friday, January 4, 2013

NRT-LAX AA business class

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita
NRT-LAX AA business class
LAX AA Flagship Lounge
LAX-NRT AA business class
NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

American Airlines easily has the most rewarding frequent flyer program as top-tier Executive Platinum members are afforded first class lounge access and 8 systemwide upgrades (SWUs) that can be used on any and all AA revenue flights.  The versatility of these SWUs pretty much leaves United and Delta Airlines in the dust since both carriers enforce strict fare restrictions over the usage of SWUs on international flights.  Needless to say, I applied 2 SWUs towards my NRT-LAX segments, both of which cleared at the time of booking.  For United, you're likely to have to wait until you get to the boarding gate on the day of your flight to see if you got upgraded, and that's after booking a higher fare class just to eligible for the SWU.

Hard product
AA's transpacific biz class hard product is on the outdated side, with refreshers to flatbed suites coming within the next few years.  The seats are angled lie-flat, which are comfortable but awkward when it comes to sleeping.  Many carriers, including United and Delta, have already updated their long-haul biz class product to flatbed seats.

Seat controls
AVOD screen
The seat pitch was sufficient and significantly longer than ANA and JAL's biz class, which is tailored towards Japanese flyers.  However, United's flatbed seats and larger AVOD screen definitely come out on top.  AA offers biz passengers Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones, which make a tremendous difference when listening to the AVOD system.  United, ANA, and JAL all used generic "noise-reducing" headsets, which barely even live up to their name.

A few hours after takeoff, food and drinks were served.  AA has a decent selection of alcoholic beverages, and I just opted for my standard white wine and champagne preference.
Wine list
I received a Japanese meal set, which needs to be preordered at least 24 hours before the time of departure.  It looks like I was the only passenger in the cabin who got the memo.
First off was the Starter, which consisted of a sushi roll and salmon and shrimp nigiri.
This is how all meals should start
Next was the Main Tray.  The thread fish entree had a good touch, whereas the other offerings were average.
Main Tray
Ice cream sundae topper
2 hours before landing, breakfast was served.  This was an obvious decision for me as the only choices were a spinach omelet or cereal.
All in all, the food was significantly better than United's, but definitely lagging behind the Japanese carriers'.  It would have helped if I was actually hungry, since I feasted for 6 hours in NRT's lounges.

Bottom line
The soft product was definitely better than United's, but United's flatbed seat hard product is the clear winner.  AA still has nothing when it comes to comparing with the Asian carrier heavyweights in terms of food and service, but neither do any of the other Western carriers.  Given the choice to fly in int'l biz again, my preference would rank with the following: JAL > ANA > AA > UA.  Considering that SWUs can be applied on even the most deeply discounted economy class fares, you really can't complain about AA's biz product since you essentially paid for an economy class seat.

Next up: LAX AA Flagship Lounge

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita

One World lounge tour of Tokyo Narita
NRT-LAX AA business class
LAX AA Flagship Lounge
LAX-NRT AA business class
NRT JAL domestic Sakura lounge

As part of my 20-hour itinerary with 2 stops from CTS-SFO, I had a lengthy 6-hour layover in Tokyo Narita airport (NRT).  Fortunately, NRT has a wealth of lounges, and as a top-tier Executive Platinum member with American Airlines, I get access to all One World alliance lounges on a same-day international flight.  My first stop was an obvious one as Japan Airlines' lounges are infinitely superior to U.S. airline lounges.  And since NRT is JAL's primary international hub, they have a flagship First Class Lounge.  So after arriving into NRT from CTS, I went through security and customs and headed straight to JAL's First Class lounge.
Fast Track with NRT's clearly marked One World Priority Lane
JAL First Class Lounge
Upon entering JAL's First Class lounge, this sign immediately caught my eye.  Free 10-minute massages, with an upper body, head, or foot massage to choose from.  Along with a superior alcohol selection, services like these are what distinguishes first class lounges from business class lounges.
Before I went in for the massage, I opted for breakfast since I was saving my stomach for this moment, having not eaten anything all morning.  The lounge has a nice food corner along with an alcoholic counter.
My breakfast meal: scrambled eggs, Japanese steamed rice, Japanese omelet, cod roe, grilled salmon, lobster bisque, and shrimp appetizer.
Nothing like having a nice upper body massage after a fulfilling breakfast.  I was going to stick around for lunch, but I was already too full to eat, so I left for the Cathay Pacific lounge after the massage.
Small glimpse of the lounge's nice lunch spread, plus a champagne.
Cathay Pacific Lounge
To my surprise, the Cathay Pacific lounge was like night and day compared to the JAL First Class lounge.  As one of the top carriers in the world, you'd expect for Cathay Pacific not to skimp out this badly.
Subpar food offerings
Meager food spread
Really, Cathay Pacific, really??
The lounge had virtually zero services, so I just sat down for a green tea ice cream and a couple of sushi rolls before heading out.  I guess you just can't expect much from a business class lounge operated by a flag carrier outside of their primary hub.

American Airlines Admiral's Club
My last stop would be the American Airlines Admiral's Club, which is the only AC located in Asia.  Since U.S. carrier lounges are often a joke, my expectations were extremely low, especially after what I experienced at the Cathay Pacific lounge.
The AC's alcohol selection was surprisingly better than Cathay Pacific's, although the food spread was pathetic as expected.  What's interesting is that this is probably AA's best AC as domestic AC's only offer the most basic alcohol selections and virtually no food.  The only advantage of the NRT AC is its proximity to AA's boarding gates.

Bottom Line
These lounges make a 6-hour layover much more bearable and interesting.  If you have lounge access, don't bother wasting your time at the AC or the Cathay Pacific lounge.  Invest all your time and your stomach at JAL's lounges as the food, alcohol, and services are infinitely superior.  To see if I was being unfair in my comparisons since I visited JAL's first class lounge and Cathay Pacific's business class lounge, I went to JAL's business class Sakura Lounge and found similar food offerings as JAL's first class lounge.  The only differences were the seats, alcohol, and services.

Next: NRT-LAX AA business class